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Briefly Reviewed: March 2023

Mount Wonder

By Scott J. Bloch

Publisher: Resource Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock)

Pages: 448

Price: $25

Review Author: Steven Faulkner

Scott J. Bloch was a student in the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas during the latter years of the 20th century. His life, like that of hundreds of other students, was transformed by a four-semester course on the Great Books taught by three professors who sat on stools on a stage and conversed about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The books they discussed were standard classics: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Herodotus’s Histories, Virgil’s Aeneid, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and others, beginning with the ancient Greeks and stretching through medieval times and into the modern age. In addition to listening to the professors’ discussions, students were required to meet in smaller sections to memorize and recite an array of poems that emphasized the beauty of landscape, of love, of wonder, of the sorrows of loss and the hope of high adventure.

The professors never taught or even mentioned Catholic doctrines or beliefs during class, but students soon learned that they were serious Catholics. By way of the Great Books class, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth blew like a sudden wind through secular, relativistic minds. Many of us (I, too, was a student at the time) were enchanted by poetry, song, and philosophy for the first time.

It is now well known that university administrators began hearing that tens, perhaps hundreds, of IHP students were converting to Christianity. Some were even heading off to France to join monasteries. On campus you could openly promote communism, Darwinism, socialism, feminism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and all the secular “isms” that dominated universities at the time, but far be it from the university to allow students to be swayed by historic Christianity! Administrators set about shutting down the IHP, and within a few years they succeeded.

Many books and articles have been written about those transforming, joyous days when students sponsored annual waltzes, wandered the hills identifying constellations, organized annual country fairs featuring handcrafted art and calligraphy, and roasted a pig in a pit. Songs were sung, square dances were held, and poetry became a normal part of our vocabularies. We have never forgotten.

One alumnus, Scott J. Bloch, he of ever-ready wit and clever commentary, has written Mount Wonder, a fictionalized account of one man’s difficult passage through that program. I was a little wary of how those experiences would appear by way of historical fiction, but I very much enjoyed this inside look at the crazy, sometimes ridiculous, yet life-changing annals of that program.

In the novel, Bernard Kennisbaum, a KU junior trying to distance himself from a father who wants him to join the family carpet business, leaves behind the pranks of his fraternity to help administrators investigate this new and notorious program called, in the novel, the Humanities Integrated Program (HIP). Bernard needs the support of administrators because he is competing for a Fulbright Scholarship. He is also attracted to a lovely young coed named Apryl, who is taking the Great Books class.

Bernard follows Apryl into the classroom, finds a seat in the front row, and listens to his first discussion/lecture, while keeping an eye on Apryl. One of the professors, the most cantankerous, is confronting students with the dilemma of Odysseus’s son: “Telemachus could have stayed in Ithaca,” he says. “He could have listened to his music, eaten at his Burger King, gone to the beach. Yet the gods gave him a mission to find his father.” The discussion quickly shifts to an inquiry into students’ conflicts with their parents and then segues into the university’s Latin motto, Videbo visionem (I will see a vision). “Is this the promise of your college careers, that you will see a vision?” asks one of the professors. “Or have you come here hoping for the blindness that all our culture lives by and thinks is normal?”

Soon the three professors are discussing wonder. “Just as wonder brought the first inkling of knowing to you as a child when you picked a flower and asked what it was, education must come from within,” says one professor. “If you cannot grasp that Truth precedes art,” says another, “you will never grasp Homer or The Odyssey,” and “you will never grasp Telemachus’s search for his father.” Later, the third professor says, “We hope to teach you to look up at the stars for the first time…. This course is not merely for your intellectual growth. In revisiting the traditions of all previous generations of students, those who walked with Socrates and observed nature, those who looked upon the hills, the seas, and up at the constellations, we are asking you to step aside from yourselves and see what is beautiful…to see what is.

Bernard sits quietly after class wondering what lies ahead.

He soon meets many students of the program who are living together in a house. He becomes both a spy for the administrators and a student whose eyes are opening on reality.

There are, perhaps, too many students to keep track of in this book: combative students, a radical protestor rumored to have set fire to a university building, a religiously mesmerized student, a motorcycle-riding farm boy, even a prostitute from the streets of Kansas City, and, of course, the beguiling Apryl, who reminds Bernard of a Botticelli painting. Bernard is a young man caught between truth and beauty. He thinks goodness rarely wins. How can our “spy” compete for the scholarship, court the girl, and betray his new friends at the same time?

One of the profs makes a comment in class: “Yours is the first generation that thinks happiness is a right, as opposed to a byproduct of living a good life.” He asks, “Why is it you are unhappy, when you spend so much time pursuing happiness?” And, “Whatever became of virtue? Ordering yourself to what is good.”

Bernard continues his conflicted search. The book’s chapter titles indicate his wandering through this maze: “Wonderstruck,” “Of Vice and Men,” “Pranking Privileges,” “Adams in the Void,” “Winter of My Disconnect,” “Middle Evil,” “Eros All Aquiver,” “Descartes Before the Whores,” and “Truth on Trial,” to name a few. Some of the story is hilarious: a drunken party devolves into a search for a lost friend who released a full-grown bull that wanders into a church sanctuary where students are gathered; a competition to wrestle a greased pig at a country fair; a kidnapping orchestrated by an upset parent; contact with the Kansas City mafia; and more. Beneath it all is a serious search for reconciliation with father and family, a search for truth, and the university’s concerted effort to censor that truth.

It’s been a quarter century since I graduated from the IHP, but this novel and its HIP brought back powerfully the ideas and poems that changed so many lives. “I had seen a vision,” writes Bernard, “oblivious to the base politics of the university, in the ache of my youth, in the hope of my future, and there by a fountain of sweetest-smelling nard.” He composes verse: “Bright Mother of our Maker, hail, Thou Virgin, ever blest; the Ocean’s Star by which we sail and gain the port of rest.”

The novel is interrupted by two Interludes that confusingly take the reader into Bernard’s later life, but an Epilogue ties up the many threads. Readers may find the conclusion of the story, which includes the building of a Catholic monastery in the hills of Kansas, too good to be true, but, in fact, former IHP students did return from a monastery in France and build a monastery in the hills of Oklahoma that is now attracting young men from all over the country. Old Don Quixote’s dream of reaching for the impossible star has, in many ways, come true.

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

By Steven E. Koonin

Publisher: BenBella Books

Pages: 320

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Preston R. Simpson

Nearly everyone has an opinion about global warming, though their opinions vary greatly, from fear of impending doom to rejection of its underlying premise. But how many ordinary people actually read the assessment reports issued by various study groups? Very few, it is safe to say. And of those, how many read the scientific papers cited in support of those reports? Do the journalists who report on this topic, whose job it is to inform us? What about the politicians who bloviate on the problem and who, in some cases, have the power to direct our society’s response?

I freely admit that I am in the group that does not read the scientific literature on this topic or even the assessment reports that are supposed to summarize the data and present it in understandable form. I want to be an informed citizen and voter, but the details of climate science have always made my eyes glaze over. And beneath it all is the gnawing suspicion that there is more than meets the eye. The source of my unease lies in the rapid change, in my adult lifetime, from fear of global chilling to dread of global warming, and also in the claim by some that the science is settled and incontrovertible — and, as a consequence, that anyone who questions it must be silenced. The latter approach reminds me of the situation in the study of biological evolution wherein numerous highly qualified researchers have indicated huge problems with the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection, but the scientific establishment, despite a theoretical commitment to constant and open inquiry, has maligned these colleagues, pushed them out of jobs, and refused to publish their work.

All this said, I found Unsettled by Steven Koonin extremely helpful for understanding climate-science issues — or, to be more precise, for understanding how little we know.

Koonin is a physicist who has worked in academia, in private industry, and in government as undersecretary for science in the Obama administration’s Department of Energy. By his own admission, Koonin is a Democrat, and he is by no means a climate denier. But he does seem to be a rare breed in the modern science world: an honest and courageous man who is disturbed when his colleagues shade or ignore scientific findings. He believes the globe is warming and that humans exert some influence on it, but beyond that, the picture is muddled. He observes that “the 2020 Democratic primary saw each candidate trying to outdo the other with over-the-top statements about ‘climate emergency’ and ‘climate crisis’ increasingly divorced from the science.”

Early in the book, Koonin lays out a few surprising facts. “Heat waves in the US are no more common than they were in 1900…and the warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years” (emphasis in original). “Humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century,” he writes, and “Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly than it was eighty years ago.” Another point: “The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.” And, finally, “The science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it.”

Koonin’s position is that the rise in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere over the past 150 years is almost entirely due to human activity, but the real questions are how much it matters and how to deal with it if it does. The bulk of the book is an education for the layman in climate data: how it is gathered, the limitations of the tools used to gather it, and the huge problems with the computer models used to make predictions about the future. The amount of data and the numerous graphs in the book can be intimidating, but they help highlight the high degree of uncertainty that underlies the data. After pointing out that reaching a net zero of all CO2 emissions — as advocated by many ill-informed but vocal politicians — is impossible, Koonin concludes with a thoughtful analysis of what we actually can do, or might be able to do, to live with a warming world. For this reason, Unsettled is invaluable for all concerned citizens.

The book should also disturb those same citizens because of the unfavorable light it sheds on our scientists and scientific institutions. Koonin quotes scientists who freely admit they feel a need to shade the truth in order to get the public to go along with a political or economic plan they think is needed. The dance reminds me of experts in other fields who witness the failure of one Darwinian prediction after another but proclaim the theory is unassailable and the next discovery will confirm it — until it doesn’t.

Koonin does, on a few occasions, name names and, at one point, refers to “brazen dishonesty,” but he is too lenient on his fellow scientists. “We’ve already seen that the institutions that prepare the official assessment reports have a communication problem, often summarizing or describing the data in ways that are actively misleading,” he writes. Leaving aside what he means by actively misleading — is there an inactive misleading? — what he describes is a problem of integrity. Institutions do not mislead the public; the scientists within them do. Koonin cites various pressures scientists are under, but conscience is not one of them.

It is instructive to ponder another vast area of concern that has caused the public to evaluate the advice provided by scientific experts. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a front-row view of how scientists deal with uncertainty and how their advice seems guided, in some cases, by political realities and pressures. By reading Unsettled, one learns that much of the same applies to the challenges of climate change.

 

©2023 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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